I grew up on Disney. I think most people did. My most formative years took place over what I’ve heard called the ‘Disney Renaissance’ – the decade covering Little Mermaid through Mulan. Well, technically Tarzan. But did Tarzan save China? I THINK NOT. These were the days of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, of heroines who first branched out from ‘just pretty’ into ‘pretty badass’, paving the way for the likes of Tiana, Merida, and Anna. I know I learned a lot from these films, and the work coming out of Disney probably had more influence over me than anything else I watched. …Except Star Trek. Which explains my socialist tendencies.
I developed this theory while at university; it may be familiar to some of you. Being a girl who grew up on Disney, I naturally had a favourite Disney princess. I’m pretty sure every girl does. Ladies in the audience, think about it a minute: who was your favourite princess when you were a kid? Look at that for a minute. Now look at your adult life and relationship choices. Look at the choices you made in relationships that were less than stellar.
Now here’s my theory: the poor relationship choices we make as adults mirror the disturbing subtext in the choices of our favourite princesses. The issues we have with ourselves can be reflected in the more disturbing corners of our preferred princess’s psyche.
I’m going to use myself as an example. It’s only fair.
Growing up, my favourite princess was Belle. This is for obvious reasons.
Belle was the first princess with whom I ever actually related. I wasn’t easily scared, cursed, or prone to narcolepsy, and while I wished for a home life that was better than my own, I was only too aware that the powers of my magical godmother were limited to puppetry and clowning. Yes, that entire sentence was true.
But Belle was different. She was like me. People thought she was weird. People thought she was too smart. She was kind and courageous, but it was always in her own quiet way. Like Belle, I was (am) a voracious reader, making friends in my head far more often than in the schoolyard. She understood that the world was better in books, and we were safer when we stayed with our imaginary people than we were with the ones in our respective hometowns.
When Belle met the Beast and their relationship moved forward in the way relationships always seem to move forward in Disney films, I was completely sucked in. Belle’s goodness changed the Beast. Through Belle, he could see that people weren’t all bad, that someone cared for him enough to stick around. His anger ebbed. His hope grew. And because Disney has never been subtle with metaphors, his inner beauty literally erupted into his outer form. That was true love to me. And that was the foundation on which I built my concept of romance.
Looking back now, I can see this wasn’t exactly an accurate representation of the love I would find in my teenage and young adult life. I can see how the story was subverted to fit the objects of my desire. I would date people who were troubled or angry or lost. I would look at all of their flaws and think, I can make them better. I knew there was a wonderful person in there somewhere, and since I was a person who was kind and clever, they would naturally become the same way with enough exposure to me.
And, naturally, this never actually worked.
Because life is not a Disney movie.
I saw something online recently that the criticism surrounding how Beauty and the Beast advocates Stockholm Syndrome is rather unfair. Belle and the Beast are both outsiders: Belle for her intellect and dislike of traditional roles and the Beast for his appearance. Their othering is what brings them together. They triumph in the end because of their differences and their compatibility. It’s the first instance of The Guy not getting The Girl in a Disney film and that’s something I find very appealing. Reading about this got me back to thinking about my hypothesis. While I’ve done some reconsideration, I still stand by my original idea. However, I’d like to add something to it.
I didn’t learn my bad relationship habits because of Disney. Instead, I learned the wrong lesson when watching this film. What I learned was that I can change him. What I should have learned is this: He may change for you. But that is his choice. It’s not your problem.
We are so quick to blame media for our problems, to say that video games or comic books are responsible for corrupting our children or increasing the divorce rate or furthering the gay agenda*. It’s all nonsense, of course, as studies have shown time and again. I think we continue to search for the blame in entertainment because it’s an easy out. It allows ourselves to play innocent victims to corrupt organizations and faceless corporations, which is always more pleasant than acknowledging responsibility for our own actions. However, the fact remains that not all fault can lie with the teacher. Every student comes in for a lesson with their own personal biases. While it’s completely possible that someone who’s already troubled could see Natural Born Killers and decide to go on a killing spree, not everyone who watches that film has this reaction. Wouldn’t that suggest that the fault lies not in the presented material but in the interpretation by this one person?
Sure, I may have picked up this particular flawed gem of advice from too many re-watches of a Disney classic. But if I’m completely honest with myself, I created the fantasy on my own. I romanticize the dark, brooding type and always have. It’s nice to think that everyone is sweet-tempered and considerate underneath all of their crusty layers. But nice is different than good. And nice is not the same as realistic.
*The media in no way works to further the gay agenda. By this point in time, it’s so well-organized that we just keep our secret communicator wristwatches tuned to the same frequency and wait for Uncle George to send the coordinates to our next meeting. Much more efficient that way.